One hundred and twenty-five pages into Aarushi, his damning account of the trial of two Delhi-region dentists accused of killing their 13-year daughter, the journalist Avirook Sen pauses to describe, with great care and precision, the filthy state of the Ghaziabad courthouse where the trial was held.
The author has already finished recounting the gory murders of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj, a middle-aged domestic servant whose body was found nearby. But it is only at this point in the book – describing drains clotted with excrement and courthouse steps glazed with slime – that Sen’s voice suddenly begins to sound real, so real that he may as well be standing right next to you.
Make no mistake: The writer has observed the legal system at close range, and he wants to scrape it off the bottom of his shoe.
Assigned to cover the trial for the Mumbai Mirror, Sen struck up an acquaintance with the defendants, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, who provided him with documents related to the case. Aarushi, an examination of the shambolic investigation that led to their convictions, aims to fully communicate his disgust to the reader. In this, he largely succeeds.
From the first moments after Aarushi’s body was found, her throat slit and her skull crushed, investigators and police screwed up. At first it seemed more negligent than malicious. Reporters and curiosity-seekers were allowed to roam the crime scene, generating such confusion that, incredibly, the second body wasn’t discovered for a full day. While the Talwars took their daughter’s body to be cremated, family friends were allowed to clean the apartment, wiping away fingerprints the killers might have left behind.
What happened next was nastier. The top investigator declared at a press conference, without presenting evidence, that the Talwars had discovered their daughter in Hemraj’s embrace and killed her to protect the family’s honour. News channels allowed this narrative to metastasize so quickly that it crowded out the available facts. One television anchor, Sen tells us, actually went on air after dipping his hands in red paint.
Police portrayed the suspects as members of a decadent overclass who amused themselves at sex parties, and implied that their daughter was following in their footsteps. To bolster their case, police leaked the girl’s SMSes and emails (“Hmm u hate me… I now ma fault m such a frekin slut”) which were then published widely, presented as evidence that she was sexually promiscuous.
If this thinly supported story was lapped up by the press, it was partly because it played into the class biases of a conservative public. Aarushi was part of the first generation of young Indians growing up on social media, and she related to her parents with a loose informality, as if they were friends. All this, spilled out as part of a febrile 24-hour news cycle, still had the capacity to shock.
Sen does a good job cataloguing investigative and prosecutorial errors: The mislabeling of a pillowcase stained with Hemraj’s blood, which could have pointed to the involvement of a visiting servant; the contamination or loss of a DNA swab that should have settled the question of whether Aarushi was raped before she was killed; the doctor who changed his testimony to assert that Aarushi’s “vaginal opening was found prominently wide open,” but who had, Sen reports, never before performed an autopsy on a woman’s body.
So why, given the failings of the justice system, doesn’t Aarushi serve as a satisfying correction of the record?
One reason is that it doesn’t offer much new evidence. The alternate theory advanced in the book – that the visiting servant, Krishna, surprised the girl in her bedroom and then killed her and Hemraj – rests too heavily on testimony given under the influence of sodium pentathol, lie detectors and “brain-mapping,” a technology that has yet to be seriously peer-reviewed or widely accepted as evidence.
Another is that Sen does not win our confidence as a narrator. Though he capably points out the failures of investigating officers and their experts, he also seems to curl his lip at them. Witnesses for the prosecution are portrayed as paan-chewing oafs. The judge is a rube obsessed with demonstrating that he speaks English, long the province of the upper classes.
Journalists, too, come off as craven and irresponsible. Looking down at the crowd outside the courtroom, Sen sees a huge, ravening animal, with “hundreds of eyes and appendages, all of which periodically reached out in the same direction as the animal grunted and roared.”
Fair enough! Except that the Talwars come in for no such skeptical treatment. From the first pages of Aarushi, Sen chooses to tell the family’s story as if he is looking through the eyes of Rajesh and Nupur Talwar (“Any reasonable background check on the Talwars tells you they were a snug, happy unit. This is the opinion of all those who knew them.”) When “hot tears” spring to Rajesh Talwar’s eyes, Sen seems to have felt the heat. Even their witnesses are described with admiration and respect (“an impeccably mannered and graceful octogenarian”).
The author who so meticulously documents the slime on the courthouse steps never pauses to explain why he came to trust the Talwars. Just because the prosecution was flawed doesn’t mean they didn’t do it.
Why does he take their word for it? He just does.
But this was always the problem with the Talwar case.
In the absence of key pieces of evidence, such as a murder weapon, everyone simply fell back on their natural sympathies. If your children went to schools like the one Aarushi did, it was easy enough to see her as an ordinary teenager, and to sympathize with parents pilloried by an irresponsible press. If you were, like the judge in the case, a farmer’s son, the kind who boasted that he had only watched a handful of movies in his life, their family life in Noida might strike you as distant and alien, slipped from its moral moorings.
This, of course, is why humans band together and form governments. We are subjective creatures, genetically wired to defend our kin. There is a need for institutions capable of establishing basic facts. Those institutions cannot function without the trust of all participants. Aarushi documents, more than anything, how tragically that trust is absent in India.
That Sen does not escape the trap of his sympathies is telling. After handily hollowing out the reader’s confidence in the state’s fact-finding, he offers little of substance to take its place, leaving us with the feeling that there is, in fact, nothing at all to believe in.
Ellen Barry is the South Asia bureau chief for the New York Times
Note: This review has been edited to correct a reference to Hemraj in the ninth paragraph as ‘Hemant’.